The question from the back of the room momentarily perplexed the panel of publishing executives: “What will we be reading these things on in five years?” It was a question so lacking in substance that it seemed designed only to become the lead for the writer article. But at the same time, it hit me: This question sums up the trade publishing industry. We anxiously await the next technical innovation that will both confuse and galvanize us but, in the process neglect to make our own plans. There is a little bit of the victim in us: We remain focused on the machine rather than the content and stand to become victims of change rather than masters of it. No publisher knows the answer to the machine question but, at the same time, they don’t appear interested in influencing the direction of technology that will guide their industry.
The writer in this case was looking for some new type of reader he could wrap his article around. What he (and the audience) should have been asking is what will we be reading (perhaps “interacting with” would be more accurate) in five years. And there lies the issue. If you asked most of the attendees at this week’s London Bookfair, they might have answered, ”an electronic version of that” while blithely pointing to something on the shelf. A more sophisticated respondent may have noted that e-book sales are only 1% of total revenues and therefore not enough to induce any radical change.
The capabilities of today’s ebook readers and applications surpass the requirements of today’s content and I don’t think that’s a good thing. In the wider world of publishing, there is a lack of ambition when it comes to how content could be presented or even how the novel could be made over. As a case in point, a panel presentation on the publishing future of 2020 offered nothing to the inventive publisher looking for guidance or direction for the future - just a lot of mild blather about workplace diversification (an important topic, certainly, but not in this context), platitudes, generalities and a presentation about workforce training in which the presenter held (in the air!) his ‘props’ (which was charmingly retro but, to my mind, underlined the lack of collective imagination).
This session was followed by the annual ‘state of British publishing’ presented by numerous heads of house in which platitudes were plentiful and expectations were dulled. Guttenberg has been dead a long time but the eBook has cryogenically resuscitated him while, at the same time, causing us to collectively lose our ability to think strategically about the impact of movable type. I mean, if we’re going to continue to bring him up let’s at least document the path from illuminated manscripts to today’s self-publishing. Mention Guttenberg and we get a free pass: I won’t have to think hard about the significance of the migration to e-text, e-delivery, e-commerce, e-interaction, etc., etc., because Guttenberg is the God of publishing change and everyone will get the significance. These publishers stand to be the victims of change rather than its master: The millennial-Monk forced out of a job.
Earlier this year, publishers were as much in the dark about the capabilities of the new Kindle reader as the rest of us. What we should really be considering is how can we can re-think our current products and involve ourselves in the technical development of e-readers and apps that take advantage of our new ideas. Force developers to adapt the technology or incorporate new applications that enable the delivery of our uniquely developed concepts. Press developers to work for us (not surprise us) and haul back some of the product development initiative. Perhaps then consumers will find themselves less in love with the ‘Kindle’ (machine) and more enamored of the content.